Perfect symmetry has been achieved: Rafael Nadal won the U.S. Open. Before that, Roger Federer won Wimbledon. Before that, Nadal won the French Open. Before that, Federer beat Nadal to win the Australian Open. The two greatest players in men’s tennis returned from long injury hiatus to split 2017’s major haul down the middle, each clinging to the major on his favorite surface—and each winning that one without dropping a set—then taking one hardcourt title apiece. Clean and balanced. It’s a result perfectly suited to the man who symmetrically adjusts his hair before each point—as if crossing himself, and perhaps no less sacred a ritual—and ensures perfect alignment of his bottles at every changeover.
Lest me and everyone else peddling this narrative too quickly turn the story of one guy’s triumph into a story of two guys, let’s appreciate the specifics of how Nadal got this one. Rafa may have receded deep in the court to return serve, but he ceded no meaningful ground, not even for a moment, while defeating world No. 28 Kevin Anderson, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. The 31-year-old South African, whose game I’ve come to deeply admire, brought all available tools to bear on this match, including a departure from his stylistic comfort zone: He served and volleyed, and forayed to net, where his touch is not the finest, in order to break free of the taxing baseline exchanges where Rafa has proved himself maybe the hardest ever to best. He failed, never managing a break point, but there was wisdom (if not a whole lot of suspense) in the attempt.
Anderson might be one of the game’s strongest servers—he held serve 89.4 percent of the time over the last year, sixth among all players on tour—but he found little security against Nadal, who broke him four times. Rafa has a way of making the difficult look inevitable.
By the end of his monstrous clay-court season I was already at a loss for words, struggling to conceive of how a better clay-court player could be intelligently designed. By now, having seen him make three Slam finals and reclaim world No. 1, there’s nothing to say except defer to Rafa’s own words from the post-match interview, his trademark modesty elevated to the metaphysical level: “So so happy now. I just can say, 31 years ago thank you to life for that opportunity.”
Life must be proud to see this guy win 16 majors, second only to Roger’s 19. And judging by the current state of the tour, both numbers seem liable to swell. (Injury or hellbent Dominic Thiem notwithstanding, who can stop Rafa from chugging along in Paris? Reaching double digits was an outrageous feat but never a sign to stop.)
Can dudes at least go through the motions of stopping them? To the extent 2017 has been a story about the resilient genius of its two greats, it has also been a story about the fragility of, well, everyone else. Five of the top 11 players sat out this tournament altogether, including all three players who’d won the Grand Slams last year: Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka. (If this is a parable about the grueling nature of tour schedule, hopefully it does not fall on deaf ears; most sane fans would prefer less and better tennis to a year-long slog with lots of dull passages.)
A scattering of seeds were left for dead by the end of week one. Young phenoms Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios both went cold in the first few days—neither made much headway in the majors this year—and Dominic Thiem later joined them after the best match of the tournament. In his swath to the title, Nadal never had to face a player ranked better than No. 28 in the world. Per ATP historian Greg Sharko, dating back to 2002, when seeding at the majors expanded to 32 from 16, this marked the first title that a player won without having to defeat a top-20 seed. In the semifinal Nadal did face Juan Martin del Potro, the man who ousted Roger Federer and who is prone to play above his on-paper ranking.
There are still a few more stops on tour before the year is through, and after this season of pure duopoly, even a fan who came up watching both legends might feel ready for the future to assert itself. Aren’t you hungry to see these two tested against the best of their peer group—all currently recovering from various maladies—and the best of the junior crop, too? It’s no accident that some of the year’s most electric matches were those that pitted these two against upstarts: Federer versus Nick Kyrgios in Miami, Nadal versus Denis Shapovalov in Montreal. Both have remarked that younger players tend to give them their very best. That’s wonderful. Taro Daniel giving his very best might be good for scratching one set off Nadal. Zverev’s or Kei Nishikori’s or Grigor Dimitrov’s best might actually make things a little more interesting.
On the one hand, the transcendence of Federer and Nadal over the rest of the field should not be used to debunk or otherwise devalue their achievements. They have been that good for that long. Their greatness has effectively blotted out the sun for an entire generation of would-be major title havers. On the other hand, I just want to watch some better tennis matches with a little more regularity. Granted, if they can deliver that kind of Australian Open final once a year, consider my mouth sealed shut—Fedal forever, until we’re all dust.